Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer of Slash: Satan’s Little Helper

Fans of the slasher film will recognize the name Jeff Lieberman. Director of the fun and goofy Squirm (notable for being featured on MST3K, which Lieberman was none too pleased with) and the really great (and not goofy) Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn (the best of the backwoods slashers), Lieberman disappeared from the horror genre, claiming that the right project never came up. After Just Before Dawn in 1981, he made only one film (Remote Control in 1988) before finally returning to filmmaking and to the horror genre with 2004’s oddball black comedy slasher Satan’s Little Helper. No, this direct to DVD release is not nearly as cheap looking or awful as its horribly executed cover art would have you believe (just look at that poster. Awful.). I’m tempted to say that the film is even good. But then I would have to ignore the horribly conventional final 20 minutes of the film and the fact that Lieberman's pretty interesting idea loses steam rather quickly. A shame, too, since the first 1/3 of the film is evidence that Lieberman still has a knack for taking banal slasher premises and fashioning them into something much more interesting.

Satan's Little Helper concerns little Dougie Whooly (Alexander Brickel) is a strange nine-year-old who  is obsessed with a shoddy looking, over-the-top violent (but not bloody) video game called "Satan's Little Helper." In fact, he’s so into this game, that when we’re introduced to him, he’s dressed up as the game’s title character. He and his mom Merrill (Amanda Plummer in a truly bizarre performance) live in a small New England town and are introduced to the viewer en route to pick up his sister, Jenna (Katheryn Winnick), who is visiting from college. Jenna brings along her new boyfriend, and weird little Dougie is beside himself at the sheer audacity of his sister finding someone in her life that is more important than him. Let me pause for a moment...

...Yeah, Dougie has a weird little crush on his sister. And, no, it’s not like an, “awww that’s so cute” little-brother-has-an-innocent-crush-on-his-sister-because-he-doesn't-know-better kind of thing; it’s really more of an “ewww, why the hell is the mother encouraging this and laughing at like it’s so adorable” kind of thing. So, yeah, it's weird and just sits there uncomfortably for the better part of 20 minutes. I don't know, perhaps I'm wrong in thinking nine-years-of-age is tad on the old side to have such "playful" feelings towards a sibling.

Anyway, back to the plot: Dougie is so upset by this new person encroaching on their Halloween fun that he decides to run off into the neighborhood to stomp and pout down the streets. While on his tantrum-filled walk, he watches a scene that appears, from a distance, to be nothing more than a fellow neighbor in costume setting up a scary scene in front of their house for the night’s trick or treating, but in reality, it's a killer moving a dead body. The killer is donning a Satan costume, which causes Dougie to think that this all a part of his game.  The Satan man moves on to another house, stabbing a man, and catching the eye of Dougie who has followed him to this location. Dougie, again thinking this is all a part of his game, approaches the killer likes it’s nothin' and asks if he could aide Satan in his endeavors.

What follows is a mix between black comedy (at times the film reminded me of Bad Santa) and slasher (if you look at the film as a straight slasher, it’s dreadful, but thankfully Lieberman seems to be up to more than that), and it should be a surprise to nobody that the former is the more interesting of the two premises. Dougie’s first goal as Satan’s little aider and abettor is isolating his sister’s new boyfriend, Alex (Stephen Graham), so that he can knock off the boyfriend and keep his sister all to himself. Alex, who is a bit of a goober but really wants to get on Dougie’s good side and make a nice impression on Jenna and her mother, doesn’t have a costume for Halloween, so he agrees to go to a costume shop with Dougie. Dougie gets him to look down an alley, which leads to him getting attacked by the killer in the Satan mask and left for dead. Dougie is ecstatic at the turn of these events, getting rid of the competition, so to speak, that threatened to usurp all of his sister’s time. And he's joyous because he thinks it’s all part of his video game.

And really the whole film after this moment is just one scene after the other of Dougie tagging along and watching the killer in the Satan mask commit murders in broad daylight (this works because Lieberman stages these scenes in a way where it could be possible that passers by simply think it's nothing more than someone decorating for Halloween). The execution of it all is actually better than what I just described there, but the film never really works as a scary or eerie horror film but more as a comedy (I don't know if Lieberman had in mind some kind of darkly comic social commentary about the effects of violence in video games on youngsters, but one could certainly make an argument that he is saying just that). In Dougie’s video game, he gets points for helping Satan kill people, and in the film’s most hilarious scene, art imitates life as the Dougie and the killer are in a supermarket parking lot hitting people with a shopping cart. As Dougie is being pushed around in the shopping cart, he gleefully exclaims, “Pregnant lady! Baby carriage!! Old man!!! Fifty Points!” This kind of bizarre, dark humor is great, and it's also why the rest of the film doesn't have a chance of living up to these crazy moments.

There’s a lot to like about this low budget number. In another era (the era of Lieberman's own cult classics Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn), this might have been elevated to the kind of oddity you sought out at your local video store; however, as it is (a modern horror film), it’s not half bad because of the sense of humor it has about itself. But the bad is really bad if you're not a fan (and therefore prepared for something like this) of the genre: the acting is atrocious across the board, the film tends to meander without any endgame in sight after the first 30 minutes, Dougie’s naivetĂ© gets tiresome (as does the little kid playing him) after the third kill — this is the point where the one-note joke of Satan’s Little Helper loses steam, especially when he watches the killer tear apart his dad...somehow still not convinced it’s real — and there are certain scenarios that fall into that so-bad-it's-good territory without (I suspect) trying to be that. I'm specifically thinking of the character of Alex’s dad — a wig salesman — who seems to have been created from the character template “sleazy man going through mid-life crisis." His introduction (and subsequent over-the-top behavior) in the film is a thing of bad horror movie beauty.

Despite the film’s obvious flaws, I have to be honest: Satan’s Little Helper held my interest the entire time. I started the film up (it’s on Netflix Instant if you’re curious) with no expectations at all, saw the shitty cover to the film and equally shitty production values and acting at the beginning of the film and was ready to switch to a different movie. But I couldn't look away; I kept watching. So credit to Lieberman for at least coming up with enough of a premise to hook me in and keep me watching all the way through to it’s dreadfully ordinary slasher ending. The sheer absurdity of certain scenes like Dougie and the killer going shopping, the subsequent supermarket parking lot scene, or the killer posing with random people from the neighborhood for pictures after he has just killed someone are...well, they're something else. Not all of the absurdity works, though.There’s a bit at the end where Jenna and Dougie’s mom is kidnapped and they go to a party get her back, and , boy, does this part of the film just draaaag. But hey, points to Lieberman for trying something a bit different (and apparently there was a more creative ending planned, but he couldn’t get it shot) — and points for making a horror film released in 2006 that strives be anything other than a ghost story, remake/re-imagining, or film predicated on the philosophy that GORE=HORROR.

And I guess that's about as reserved a recommendation one can give, but I have to say, if you're like me, and you've exhausted your options on just about every slasher movie made, give Liberman's film a shot. Because the seasoned slasher fan will be able to look past certain deficiencies (or at least laugh at them) and see the interesting premise that is beneath the low-budget surface. Satan's Little Helper proves that Lieberman still has something to offer the genre; I just hope we don’t have to wait another 20+ years for his next horror film.


  1. I agree with you that the shopping cart scene is easily the highlight of the film. The last half really does drag, which is a shame because the first half is very amusing. The central premise, serial killer hiding his murders among Halloween decorations, is clever enough to support the film for a while. The main kid was terrible though. I think the film is so clearly a result of Lieberman's sensibilities. All of his films have that quirky, just off-center approach to typical genre material.